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Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at Yale Repertory Theatre

Review: WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? at Yale Repertory Theatre

This stunning production runs through October 29

James Bundy, Artistic Director of Yale Repertory Theatre and Dean of Yale School of Drama, often helms the first production of a season, and that production is often a classic play: Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE; Tom Stoppard's ARCADIA; Samuel Beckett's HAPPY DAYS; and Edward Albee's A DELICATE BALANCE, to name a few. This season, he directs what many consider to be Albee's masterpiece, WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf, and anyone who sees this production is fortunate indeed.

In describing his take on the play, Bundy speaks about mining the script for "elements of pure clowning," "witty wordplay" and "a lot of silliness." Make no mistake, though: this director also brings out the play's brutality, deep sorrow, bottomless disappointment, and violence, literal and verbal. But his genius, here, is in balancing the humor with the drama. A question the great director, Harold Clurman, teaches us to ask, no matter the script, is, "What is there to enjoy?" Bundy, while being true to the scorching and, at times, intentionally exhausting portrait of a marriage gone terribly wrong, gives us much to enjoy.

The plot is both straightforward and complex. George and Martha, married for twenty years, live in the hot house environs of a small, Northeastern college. He is an associate professor of history who was expected to have a brilliant career but who, instead, failed to fulfill his potential. Martha is the college president's daughter who idolizes her father and married George expecting him to, first, take over the history department and then to take over the college when, in the distant future, Daddy dies. George cannot forgive Martha for her illusions about him, and Martha cannot forgive George for smashing those illusions.

Into this stew of resentment and booze-did I mention that these two appear able to exist on hard liquor alone?-comes a young couple new to the college. Handsome, confident Nick teaches and conducts research in the biology department, and his wife, Honey, is a "slim-hipped," child-like creature, apt to "be sick" and subsequently lie in a fetal position on cool bathroom tiles. During Nick and Honey's visit, which commences at 2 am after a faculty party, George and Martha's penchant for what they call "fun and games" is on full view: among the delights are "Humiliate the Host," "Get the Guests," and "Bringing up Baby."

Bundy has cast these characters beautifully and, in the case of George, surprisingly. René Augesen is voluptuous, loud, at times hilarious, at other times pitiable, and often cruel to the point of emotional destruction. No matter Martha's mood or tactics, Augesen's portrayal is magnificent. As George, Dan Donohue brings in the quality of a loose cannon; he's certainly nothing like Richard Burton from the 1966 film or Tracy Letts, from the 2012 Broadway revival. Instead, Donohue is slim and inward facing; his George often bends his body around a bottle of bourbon, bows his head, or bounces on his toes. His voice is reedy, and just when it seems that he is no match for Martha, his explosions are terrifying. His scenes with Nick and his sadism towards Honey, in particular, bring fresh colors to the role, and he certainly plays up many of the clown-like moments that Bundy has planted in the production.

Emma Pfitzer Price is terrific as Honey, a role that is trickier that it might seem. Here, too, Bundy has helped Price find all the humor possible in this young woman while also ensuring that we understand her terror at the idea of becoming a fully sexualized and fertile adult woman. A high point is when Honey insists upon performing her "interpretive dance": Price's Honey is graceful enough to be a professional and drunk enough to be completely ridiculous: a delight.

The night I attended, Nate Janis (Nick) was ill, so his understudy, Lucas Iverson, went on. Iverson is a third-year actor at the David Geffen School of Drama, and while I'm as certain as one can be that Bundy cast Janis as expertly as he did the other three actors, I cannot imagine a better Nick than Iverson. Iverson has the blond-haired good looks that match perfectly with George's fixation on Nick's supposed intention to create an Aryan race of test-tube babies. His demeanor-at times charming and at other times coiled, watchful, and sadistic in his own subtle way-is mesmerizing. While Iverson's Nick is confident, he is also vulnerable; the combination adds even more facets to this sparkling production.

As is nearly always the case at Yale Rep, the artistic team is superb. Costume Designer Kyle J. Artone (a fourth-year student at the David Geffen School of Drama) has dressed George in a charcoal grey sweater and lighter grey trousers, perhaps a nod to Martha's accusation that George is a "cipher." In contrast, Martha has brightly colored, low-cut clothing until the final act, in which she wears a white button-down shirt over slim black pants. Honey's modest, Kelly-green dress and, especially, her delicate pumps (which she kicks off and puts on numerous times throughout the evening) bespeak her uneasy relationship to adulthood. Nick is in a blue suit that sets off his blond hair; just based on his suave appearance alone, George has reason to feel threatened in more ways than one.

Miguel Urbino has designed a stunningly detailed and beautiful set; and Jiahao(Neil)Qiu's lighting, especially as dawn comes up at the play's close, is evocative and poignant. Matthew Armentrout's Hair Design is just right, as is Earon Chew Nealey's make-up, especially Honey's bright lipstick.

Bundy has clearly created a world for these actors in the rehearsal hall in which fun and ease together make it possible to push the horrors of the story to their limit. And special kudos to Lucas Iverson; this is a play to test the sheer stamina of any actor, and the emotional and physical intensity make the role even more challenging. Keep your eye out for this actor; I predict a marvelous career.

And don't miss this production; it's one of the two or three best that I've seen in Connecticut in the past fifteen years.

Pictured in photo: Dan Donohue (George) and René Augesen (Martha)

WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf continues at Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel Street in New Haven, Connecticut through October 29. Masks are required at all performances. For further information, call the box office at: 203.432.1234 or visit: www.yalerep.org.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus




From This Author - Brooks Appelbaum

Brooks has been writing theater reviews since her undergraduate days, and her critical writings have appeared in The New Yorker, the New Haven Magazine, and elsewhere. She currently write... (read more about this author)


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